I’ve owned a copy of Code 46 (2003), since it came out on DVD, and I just got around to watching it a few weeks ago. This subtle sci-fi drama is about relationships, more specifically the one that forms between William Geld (Tim Robbins), an “intuitive” investigator, and Maria Gonzales (Samantha Morton), a woman who is stealing and then forging travel papers. To understand the gravity of her actions, you have to learn more about the film’s backdrop. In this futuristic, totalitarian society, people either live in large cities or exist in the “outlands,” harsh desert wastelands. If you want to move from one checkpoint to the next, you have to have the right travel documents. Some people can’t get traveling papers, because of pre-existing health conditions or another reason. Those desperate enough and willing to go against the authorities might turn to Maria for help.
William arrives in Shanghai on a 24-hour pass with the objective of interviewing employees at a company known as the Sphinx. He has taken an intuitive virus, which allows him to know if someone is or is not lying. When he meets Maria, he knows that she’s guilty of the crime, but he doesn’t turn her in. For some inexplicable reason, he is drawn to her. And even though he is a married man with a son back home, he has sex with this young, unconventional woman. So why is the film called Code 46? The title refers to a law that states that if two people share the same “genetic identity,” anywhere between 25 percent to 100 percent, they cannot procreate. If they do, the government steps in, terminates the child and wipes the mother’s memory of her ever having been pregnant. You can probably guess where this movie is going without my giving you any further details.
The screenplay for Code 46 was written by Frank Cottrell Boyce. If you don’t know who he is, he crafted the stories for Hilary and Jackie (1998) and, one of my favorites, Millions (2004). Michael Winterbottom, the man behind the camera for A Mighty Heart (2007) and The Killer Inside Me (2010), directs. Prior to their making of this particular film, they collaborated on 24 Hour Party People (2002), a biography of Tony Wilson, the man who set up Factory Records and brought Manchester’s music to the world. If I remember correctly from the short documentary included on the DVD of Code 46, Winterbottom wanted to direct a sci-fi film that wasn’t overtly sci-fi. Because his budget wasn’t very big – about $7.5 million – he decided that instead of constructing vast sets and hiring a lot of CGI technicians, he would scout the world for futuristic looking locations. And he found them in London, Dubai, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Rajasthan. If you can fault the film for anything, it isn’t its look. The locations and landscapes are exotic, and they are beautifully captured by cinematographers Alwin H. Kuchler and Marcel Zyskind.
The acting is pretty good, too. I probably bought this DVD, sight unseen, because I’m a fan of Morton, an earthy British actress. In fact, I fell in love with her after seeing Minority Report, which came out one year prior to Code 46. I didn’t quite believe the fact that this blue-eyed, pale-skinned, nearly bald-headed actress would sport the name Maria Gonzalez, but oh well. You just go with it. Robbins has never been a favorite of mine, and despite the fact that his character is kind of an adulterous jerk, I thought he and Morton exhibited pretty good chemistry together. The supporting actors don’t really have significant enough screen time to warrant many comments. I was, however, a bit stoked and surprised to see Indian actor Om Puri playing Bahkland, the head of the company being investigated, and Japanese actor Togo Igawa, playing the guy who gets to drive Robbins around in Shanghai. As you might have guessed, the film has a pretty eclectic, international cast.
I wouldn’t say that I liked or disliked Code 46. It was simply passable entertainment. That said, a few things annoyed me. Characters spoke in English that was peppered with a lot of foreign words, particularly Spanish, but other languages were spoken including French, Arabic and Mandarin. I understand why Boyce would do this – to demonstrate an increasingly global society – but I felt it was kind of distracting and bit precious. For example, here’s the opening voiceover: “I think about the day we met. I suppose you arrived par avion. Maybe you were the first to get to security. You didn’t intend to stay. You only had 24-hour cover, so luggage was a mano. And they probably had a driver waiting, so you didn’t need to find a coche …” Unless you are aware of many languages, you might not know what she’s talking about, and because it’s voiceover, you don’t have her words in any context. Again, I found this mixing of languages fairly unnecessary. Another thing that I wasn’t particularly keen about was the fact that I wasn’t really sure where the film was going. It started out as a semi-intriguing mystery – who was stealing the “papelles” and why? – but it quickly went into torrid, extra-maritial affair territory, which I found bog standard and boring. (I’m not a lover of romances.) I actually found the concept behind Code 46 more intriguing than the film itself. Why would a law like this even have to exist on the books? In the future, cloning and in-vitro fertilization have become so common that the government has to step in so as to prevent “incest.” Not that anyone knows they are related or are committing incest. Not initially, anyway. In this society, it’s pretty easy to find out. All you do is take a strand of hair to a pharmacy and within a brief time, voila, you know you shouldn’t be bonking your new friend. I found it rather creepy/interesting that Maria and William were so compelled to be together. What was behind that drive? By contrast, William was just “friendly” with his wife, a woman with whom he was probably “matched.” I loved Gattaca (1997), which takes places in a futuristic society in which genes and procreation are strictly controlled, so when I read the synopsis of Code 46, I thought “great!” But this isn’t Gattaca. At all. And I really wish it had been.
To me, Code 46 was essentially a missed opportunity. It had some good ideas, but it didn’t seem to know what to do with them. Maybe no one cared enough to develop them. This was more or less a “love someone at any cost” type of thing rather than an idea-rich sci-fi film, which means I wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about it. On the plus side, it is only 93 minutes long, so if you take a chance on it, you haven’t wasted your whole afternoon.
Code 46 is rated R for a scene of sexuality, including brief graphic nudity.
Rating: A very weak 3 stars out of 5